The Literary and Social Background to T.S. Eliot

Eliot once said that, “a great poet in writing of himself writes his age”, and to none is this remark more applicable than to Eliot himself. His Waste Land has been called the epic of the modern age, presenting as it does a panorama of the futility and anarchy that is contemporary civilisation. Eliot’s poetry cannot be understood without an understanding of his age. In this chapter, we shall first consider the social milieu in which Eliot matured and created, and then the main literary trends which influenced him and determined the tone of his poetry.


Urbanisation and Its Evils

The year 1890 may be regarded as a landmark in the literary and social history of England. It ushered in an era of rapid social change, and this change is to be noticed in every sphere of life. By the last decade of the 19th century, there was a complete breakdown of the agrarian way of life and economy. It meant the end of rural England, and the increasing urbanisation of the country. Industrialisation and urbanisation brought in their wake their own problems. There have risen problems like the problem of overcrowding, housing shortage, a significant increase in vice and crime, fall in the standards of sexual morality, and a rapidly increasing ugliness. The atmosphere has increasingly grown more and more smoky and noisy, and city slums raise their ugly heads on all sides. There has been a loosening in sex taboos and an increase in sexual promiscuity for public opinion does not operate as a check in a crowded city. Early 20th century poetry vividly reflects all their evil effects of industrialization. Ennui and boredom of city life and its agonising loneliness are all brought out by poems like the Waste Land. However, the change has been beneficial in one respect at least: it has brought about a more healthy pattern in social relations. The Victorian ethics of competition and money-relationship has given place to a new concept of social responsibility and social morality. The new age has seen the emergence of the concept of the welfare state: the society or the state is now held responsible for education, health and well-being of the individual. “Divorce today carries no moral stigma comparable to that of exploiting the poor, or of ill-treating a child.” The sphere of social morality, in terms of public good, has expanded at the expense of private morality.

The Spirit of Questioning

The century ushered in an era of moral perplexity and uncertainty. The rise of the scientific spirit and rationalism led to a questioning of accepted social beliefs, conventions and traditions. In matters of religion, it gave rise to scepticism and agnosticism. No doubt there was much questioning, much criticism of traditional beliefs in the Victorian era also, but the Victorian writer was not critical of the very fundamentals, of the very basis of his social and moral order. On the whole, his attitude was one of acceptance. Dickens and Thackeray are both critical writers, but they criticise only a few evils inherent in their social system. Basically, they accept their way of life, and are proud of it. By the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 20th century, we find writers, like Shaw, Wells and Galsworthy, criticising the very basis of the existing social, economic and normal system. As R.A. Scott-James puts it, “the 20th century has, for its characteristic, to put everything, in every sphere of life, to the question and secondly, in the light of this scepticism, to reform, reconstruct,—to accept the new age as new, and attempt to mould it by conscious, purposeful effort.” The wholesale criticism of the existing order from different angles and points of view, often opposite and contradictory, has increased the perplexity of the common man. Baffled and at bay, he does not know what to accept and what to reject.

Interest in the Sub-conscious

This atmosphere of perplexity, confusion and anxiety has been further accentuated by the long strides forward that the study of psychology has taken since the times of Freud. Freud emphasised the power of the unconscious to affect conduct. Intellectual convictions, he pointed out, were rationalisations of emotional need. Human beings are not so rational as they are supposed to be: their conduct is not guided and controlled by the conscious, rather it is at the mercy of the forces lying buried deep within the unconscious. His followers, like Jung and Bergsen, have carried Freud’s formulations to their logical conclusion. In this way, a new dimension has been added to the assessment of human behaviour and more and more emphasis is being laid on the study of the unconscious. The abnormal is no longer regarded as a sign of degeneracy; it is now recognised that even the normal are abnormal and neurotic to some extent. This has had a profound influence on 20th century moral attitudes, specially in matters of sex. Thus Freud and his followers have shown conclusively that repressed sex instincts are at the root of much neurosis and other signs of abnormality. His theory of “the Oedipus Complex” has caused a sensation and it is being freely exploited by 20th century writers. The study of the subconscious, even the unconscious, is a major theme of modern literature. Intellect is no longer regarded as the means of true and real understanding, and emphasis is placed on feeling and intuition. Rationalism, and along with it Humanism, is at a discount. T.S. Eliot, for example, rejects rationalism and pins his faith on the superhuman as contrasted with the purely human.

Changing Pattern of Human Relationships

As a result of the teaching of modem psychology, man is no longer considered as self-responsible or rational in his behaviour. The theory of the Oedipus Complex, mentioned above, has had a profound impact on private and family relationships. Jealousies are recognised where no such imputations would have been made previously. Hamlet has been interpreted by Eliot in terms of the “Oedipus Complex”, it is the theme of one of D.H. Lawrence’s major novels, and mothers are supposed to be jealous of their daughters-in-law. Sexual renunciation has ceased to be a theme of literature, interest in sex-perversion has grown, and there is a free and frank discussion of sex. Victorian taboos on sex are no longer operative. There is a break up of the old authoritarian pattern in family relationships, the assessment of the relative roles of the sexes has changed, woman has come to her own, and the notion of male superiority has suffered a serious blow. “The war of the generations”, of the old and the young, has resulted in a re-orientation of parent-child relationship. The greater mobility resulting from the automobile and the railway train has also weakened the authority of the old over the young and increased the rootlessness of man. This rootlessness has brought in its wake its own problems and frustrations. Eliot’s Waste Land reveals a harrowing consciousness of this phenomenon of 20th century city life.

Revolt Against Authority: Note of Anxiety

The First World War further strained the authoritarian pattern of family relationships and increased tensions and frustrations. The re-action of the post-war world has been to suspect all manifestation of authority. It may be called an era of revolt against authority. Political and religious scepticism, general disillusionment, cynicism, irony, etc., have become the order of the day. The dictum “Power Corrupts” is a symbol of the revolt of the post-war generation. The temper of the age is ‘anti-heroic’, and ‘action’ and ‘success’ in a worldly sense have become questionable values. Interest has shifted from the “extrovert” to the “introvert”. ‘Neurosis’ and spiritual gloom are widespread. Economic depression, unemployment, overpopulation, acute shortage, etc., have increased the hardship of life, and caused stress and strains and nervous breakdowns. The hero in the inter-war novel is a person, to whom things happen: he is an ‘anti-hero’, a neurotic, a “cripple” emotionally, if not physically. There is an atmosphere of moral unease and uncertainty, a collapse of faith in the accepted patterns of social relationships and a search for new patterns.

Collapse of Old Values and Ideals

Though there has been an occasional revival of Christianity even in the orthodox forms, as in the works of T.S. Eliot and Graham Greene, the 20th century under the impact of science and rationalism has witnessed a gradual weakening of religious faith. Religious controversies no longer exercise any significant influence on public issues. Moral and ethical values are no longer regarded as absolute. Philosophy and metaphysics, instead of concerning themselves with the nature of God, show a keen interest in the study of the nature of man. To Freud man is a biological phenomenon, a creature of instincts and impulses, to the Marxist he is an outcome of economic and social forces. The pessimism and despair of the age is seen in the picture of man, “as but the outcome of chance collocation of atoms”. Gone are the days of the Victorian optimism when man was regarded as essentially rational, acting in his best interest, which, his reason was supposed to teach him, was identical with social good. The same perplexity and uncertainly is to be seen in the field of political theory. Socialism and internationalism have replaced the old Victorian notion of the supremacy of the whites. The entire gamut of imperial relations has undergone a revolutionary change. Nationalism is no longer regarded as enough, and imperialism has come in for a great deal of criticism. The relations between the nations of the world must be based on equality and mutual respect and not on the old basis of political subjection and imperial supremacy. The empire instead of remaining a matter of pride, as in the days of Kipling and Tennyson, is looked down upon with a sense of guilt. Thus E.M. Forster in his Passage to India advocates relationships between nations, as well as between individuals, based on equality and the feeling heart. Eliot advocates that England’s literary insolation should end and he views English literature as a part of European literary tradition extending from Homer onwards. Cosmopolitanism is the order of the day, and emphasis is laid on the study of comparative literature, comparative mythology, religion, etc. Nationalism is thus in conflict with internationalism, and efforts to reconcile the two have so far met with little success.

Search for New Patterns

The disintegration of faith and traditional beliefs had led writers, like D.H. Lawrence to seek refuge from uncertainty and perplexity, in some, “mystic religion of blood”, and W.B. Yeats to build up a personal ‘System’ out of a strange fusion of magic and occultism. T.S. Eliot searches for this pattern in the close similarity between myths of different peoples, and the European literary tradition. Authoritarian systems have found favour on the continent, and Marxism with its emphasis on class war has had a large following even in England. Marxism has provided many with the vision of a New Society which will replace the present one in the not too distant future. As Arthur Koestler emphasises, every period has its own dominant religion and hope, and Marxist Socialism has become the hope of the early 20th century. Marxism has had a profound impact on social organisation. The aristocracy, already degenerate and corrupt by the end of the 19th century, has lost practically all power and prestige with the turn of the 20th century. There has been an immense increase in social mobility, the profit-motive is condemned, and prestige goes with merit and education, and not with birth. Attention has been focused on social and economic problems, and planned development is favoured so that there may be no extreme poverty side by side with great wealth. Thus the search for a ‘system’ or ‘pattern’ has resulted in the emergence of Marxism and the concept of economic planning.

Multiplication of Books: Decline in Quality

The modern age has witnessed a phenomenal rise in literacy. Cheap books, magazines, papers, etc., have been pouring out in their tens of thousands with the result that the spread of education has been almost universal. However, there has been a visible decline in quality. The old culture of the people expressed in folk-song, dance, rustic craft, etc., has been destroyed. The cinema, the radio, the popular literature, full of crime or love stories, have exploited the people for commercial purposes. There has been an increase th vulgarity, brutality and coarseness. Human relationships have been coarsened and cheapened: man has become incapable of finer and subtle emotional responses. Further, the cinema, the television, and the cheap novel, have fostered a kind of day-dreaming and a proportionately weakened grasp of reality. “Many people live fantasy existences derived from the shadow lives of the screen.” This lowering of tastes has had an adverse effect on art and literature. Bad art and cheap literature, ‘pot boilers’ have become the bane of the new age. The exploitation of the youth for commercial (as well as political) purposes has tended to assign to them a spurious importance, and hence the antagonism of the old and the young has been accentuated. It has become a century of the revolt of youth. Vigorous experiments are being made in the field of music and other fine arts, and literature, but this is a symptom of the break-down of cultural continuity rather than of cultural vigour.

Modern Literature: Its Representative Character

Generally speaking, the modern writer is intensely conscious of his social milieu and does not fail to reflect it in his works. To what extent the new age is reflected in the

literature of the period would be examined in the following section.



Modern Criticism: Its Novelty and Variety

Twentieth century literary criticism in England offers a bewildering variety of critical theory and practice. New discoveries in psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics, etc., have brought about a revolution in critical methods with the result that modern criticism is quite different from criticism in the 19th century. Critics like I.A. Richards, T.S. Eliot, F.R. Leavis, William Empson, have provided entirely new interpretations of old writers, and presented them in an entirely new light. The full significance of their achievement is yet to be realised.

Traditional Criticism: Arnold and Pater

However, at the turn of the century there were two traditions—the Matthew Arnold tradition of intellectual, abstract or scientific criticism, and the Aesthetic, Impressionistic tradition of Walter Pater—that held the day. While Arnold made ‘high seriousness’ and ‘criticism of life’ the tests of poetry, Pater’s criticism was aesthetic or impressionistic: while Arnold made art subservient to life. Pater advocated the theory of ‘art for art’s sake’. Arnold’s influence was an all-pervasive and continuing one. That is why Eliot once remarked that we seem still to be living in the critical tradition of Arnold. Pater, on the other hand, has been a source of inspiration for the Bloomsbury group of critics, as EM. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and Clive Bell. According to these critics, the enjoyment of art and the appreciation of beauty is the greatest good of human life, and art, therefore, must be freed from the shackles of morality. Their criticism is impressionistic, they assess a work of literature on the basis of the pleasure that it affords them.

Academic Criticism: Lack of Originality

These two traditions continued into the 20th century, and were a constant source of inspiration. But in the opening years of the century, we do not find any original critic, with a definite and individual point of view. Literary criticism is largely academic, the work of distinguished university professors. They are eminent scholars, they painstakingly collect facts, biographical, historical and social, and evaluate a writer on the basis of these facts, but they lack a precise point of view. Chief among these scholar-critics are George Saintsbury, Edward Dowden, A.C. Bradley, Oliver Elton, W.B. Ker, W.J. Courthope, etc. There is another group of scholars who devote their attention to textual emendation. Distinguished scholars, like Furness, Dover Wilson, Gregg, Pollard, try to reach an authentic version of old texts.

T.E. Hulme: His Influence

The only original critic—one who has had considerable influence on T.S. Eliot, as also on the whole course of criticism in the century—is T.E. Hulme. His point of view is religious, classical and tragic. With the existentialists, he believes that tragedy is the central fact of human life. That is, and has always been, the human predicament. Man has always suffered, and this suffering arises from his own imperfections. Man is imperfect and finite, while God is perfect and infinite. Two conclusions follow from man’s imperfection and finitude: since man is imperfect, inspiration alone is not a safe guide, and since he is finite, he can never achieve the perfection and the finitude which belongs to non-human or the supernal. In this way, he at once rejects both the romantic concept of poetry as inspiration and the Victorian and Darwinian faith in unlimited progress. Thus his point of view is anti-romantic and anti-humanistic. He advocates the need of order and discipline, and thus becomes a champion of ‘classical revival’ in literature, which Eliot also advocates. Eliot strengthened the reaction against romanticism and humanism and did much to bring about the classical revival. Further, Hulme pointed out that poetry should express the vague, fleeting impressions passing through the mind of the poet, and this can only be done when the verse-form is made loose and flexible. He thus became a powerful advocate of verse clibre or ‘free verse’. He also advocated that the poet should express his concepts through the use of solid, concrete and clear images, and in this way, he became a source of inspiration to Ezra Pound and other poets of the Imagist Schools.

Foreign Influences: Marx

After World War I, English insularity was broken and ideas and influences from Europe began to flow in and affect the course of literary criticism in England. First, there was the influence of Marx and his concept of class struggle. Writers were analysed and interpreted in terms of class-conflict. For example, David Daiches in his book Society and Literature shows how economic trends are reflected in literature; Cristopher Caudwell studies, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the other romantics, against the background of social and economic changes. Aestheticism of Pater is thus rejected and literature is viewed as a social activity reflecting the changing social and economic patterns.

Croce: Expressionism: Surrealism

Secondly, there was the potent influence of the Indian critic Benedetto Croce. According to his theory, vivid pictures are constantly rising in the mind of the poet, and he must express them spontaneously and fully as they arise in his mind, without any attempt at organisation. This is known as Expressionism. Expressionistic writing is bound to be broken and fragmentary in keeping with the fragmentary and chaotic nature of the vague sensations fleeting through the consciousness of the poet. The teaching of Croce had a far-reaching impact on creative and literary activity in England. Closely allied with Expressionism is the French theory of Surrealism. Surrealism attributes artistic creation to dreams and the influence of spirits who inspire the artist with his forms and images. Herbert Read in one of those critics whose works reveal the influence of this creed.

The Psychologists: Their Influence

These influences were joined in and strengthened by the teachings of modern psychology, specially those of Freud, Jung and Bergson. Freud believed that suppression of the sex-instinct results in frustration and neurosis, and art is but a sublimated expression of this neurosis. Psychological theories were used for an analysis and interpretation of past writers and their works. Thus Hamlet has been interpreted in the light of Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex. The motives and processes that lead to a particular work of art were studied and thus new dimensions were added to literary criticism. Similarly, the impact of literature on the mind of the readers is sought to be explained in Psychological terms. I. A. Richards is the most outstanding of the critics of the psychological school. According to him, the pleasure of literature arises from the fact that it brings about a healthy equilibrium between the instincts and impulses of the readers.

The New Critics

As the century advanced, specially after the World War II, the most potent single influence was that of the New Critics The term was first used by J.E. Spingarn, and though the New Criticism had its origin in the writings of T.E. Hulme, it is now mainly an American movement. Its chief exponents in America are Kenneth Burke, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Richard Blackmur, Cleanth Brooks, etc. In England its leading representatives are I.A. Richards, T.S. Eliot, F.R. Leavis, William Empson, etc.

Their Methods

The New Critics are opposed to the biographical, historical, sociological and comparative approach of conventional criticism. All such considerations are regarded as extrinsic and irrelevant, and a work of art is judged solely on its own merits. A poem, a piece of literature, is the thing in itself, with a definite entity of its own, separate both from the poet and the socio-cultural milieu in which it is produced. The emphasis is laid on the study of the text, and its word by word analysis and interpretation. The music of a poem, its imagery and versification, its total structure, must be taken into account to arrive at its meaning. Words must be studied with reference to their sound, and their emotional and symbolic significance. New criticism is predominantly textual, and the new critics have rendered valuable service to literature by their study and interpretation of literary classics. While Eliot has his affinity with the critics of the New School, he is against too close a scrutiny of a work of art. The poem is the thing, and it must be studied in itself, but he is against the “lemon-squeezer”, critics who press words too closely.


To conclude: English literary criticism in the 20th century is a mixed medley of the old and new: much that is traditional persists along with what is new and experimental. Thus historical criticism survives in the works of scholars and professors like David Cecil, CM. Bowra, I for Evans, etc., and the moral concern of Arnold is to be seen in the critical creeds of D. H. Lawrence and Middleton Murry. While it is too early to assess the worth and significance of the New Critics, who today hold the field, there can be no denying that they have raised the standards of literary discussion, and opened out promising vistas. T.S. Eliot takes his position in the van of these critics.


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